Millions of animals were mummified in ancient Egypt as votive offerings to the gods. While many of these mummies contain actual animals, quite a few have been uncovered that are empty. Others contain just part of an animal.
Was this an ancient scam?
Dr. Lidija McKnight from the University of Manchester contends that it was not. She is a research associate for the Ancient Egyptian Animal Bio Bank Project, which has analyzed more than 800 animal mummies from collections in the U.S., Europe and Britain. Of this amount, around a third of the mummies were boneless. Some were fashioned out of linens padded with various items—such as twigs, reeds and mud—to resemble an animal. Others contained animal products—like feathers and eggshells.
McKnight explains that the ancient Egyptians were probably aware that they were not getting fully mummified animals, and they likely did not care. They believed that part of an animal—or material associated with an animal—could be substituted for the whole. Thus, these “empty” mummies would still have been viewed as acceptable offerings, which is all that would have mattered to them.
Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed, a new exhibit at the Manchester Museum, delves into the background and purpose of these animal mummies in ancient Egypt. It also explores how these mummies were excavated and how some ended up in British collections. While the research of animal mummies is a relatively new field, the exhibit makes clear that it has a promising future—especially thanks to technology that makes it possible to examine these mummies without damaging them.